Transforming Nigeria: How 1.5 million girls found their way to school
The Girls Education Project, a collaboration between the Nigerian government, UNICEF, and the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, increased girls' enrollment in school and improved learning outcomes.
Nigeria’s child population is large and growing. Children (0-18 years) account for half of the 210 million strong population. By 2030, when all children should have access to inclusive, quality education, Nigeria will account for 17 per cent of the children in Africa and 5 per cent of the children in the world. What happens to children in Nigeria matters significantly to regional and global development, and the world is watching closely.
More children are now going to school in Nigeria than a decade ago. In 2012, however, the picture was sobering, particularly for children living in the north of the country and for girls. At least 1 in 3 children were out of school, gender parity was on average 0.73 in six Northern States and data was largely unavailable on learning levels. Nigeria needed an evidence-based model to get girls into primary school and to keep them there. A range of supply, demand and systemic factors were keeping girls out of school. Poverty, insecurity, negative social norms on girl’s education, crumbling infrastructure, lack of data, poor quality teaching and learning and many more were hobbling opportunities for girls.
Enter the Girls Education Project Phase III (GEP3). The Federal Government of Nigeria and six northern states partnered with UNICEF and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to improve access to learning, especially for girls, and to begin to shift their life opportunities through education.
GEP3 was intentional in its design with evidence-driven planning and implementation. Using an ecological systems approach, GEP3 addressed the multi-faceted and intersecting disadvantages which most severely hindered girls’ access to education. By pairing interventions which aimed to increase girls’ enrolment and retention at the household and community level with those intended to drive improvements in learning at school level, and strengthening governance at community, school, and systems levels, GEP3 was designed for scale and sustainability.
After 10 years of implementation, FCDO’s longest running and biggest investment in girls’ education ($109m) globally, brought 1.5 million girls into school in Northern Nigeria, closed the gender gap and improved learning. An independent evaluation supported by a range of research studies, showed that modest ($45) unconditional cash transfers to indigent households, combined with extensive community mobilization and enrolment drives, school/learning center grants to fix infrastructure and investment in early grade reading and numeracy (through structured pedagogy) were highly successful in drawing girls into school.
Girls’ enrolment skyrocketed from 1.76 million to 2.87 million - representing a 64 per cent increase. Gender parity increased in the six states from 0.73 to 0.97. And girls’ survival in primary 1 to primary 5 increased from 57 per cent to 87 per cent. Learning levels too improved in public primary schools and in Integrated Qur’anic Schools with GEP3 learners outperforming their peers in both English and Hausa literacy and numeracy. So enduring was the effects of GEP3, that literacy rates increased among young women aged 15-24 years in the six states.
GEP3’s greatest success was the transformational shift it achieved in social norms on girls’ education evidenced by rising enrolment rates and a drop in early marriage rates and early pregnancy rates in the six states. At the heart of GEP3’s success were local women, High-level Women Advocates (HiLWAs) and mothers’ associations (MAs), supported by traditional and religious leaders, and peer groups rooting out deep-seated misconceptions about girls’ education and reimaging the role of girls and women in society.
With the closing of the programme, government, UNICEF and partners have their sights firmly set on scale. Supported by a new gender in education policy, a new commission on Almajiri children and a framework of action on out of school children brokered by government and UNICEF with the 36 states, hopes are high that inroads can be made in reducing the out of school rates in the country.
But the agenda on girls’ education in Nigeria remains unfinished. Global evidence suggests that the best returns on girls’ education are achieved when they complete 12 years of basic education. This is just as true for education and economic outcomes as it is for health, social and societal outcomes.
Much work remains to be done in Nigeria to build a model on the transition, retention and completion of girl’s secondary education. We invite our partners and donors to join us in the ambitious endeavour in a context ripe with possibility with its 101 million child and adolescent population.